Sundararajan Murugan-andhan was barely ten when his grandmother showed him a patch of land near their farm in Udumalpet, near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. She wanted him to set up an industry there when he grew up. But, Sundar, as he prefers to be called, knew nothing about industries. He just wanted to be an engineer. Time, interestingly, would weld the grandmother’s and grandson’s dreams into Versa Drives, a company which is taking the ceiling fan industry by storm.
Traditional fans use single phase induction motors which are cheap and inefficient. Versa Drives’ fans, sold under the brand Superfan, run on brushless DC motors (BLDC) controlled by microchips. The energy saving is estimated to be around 50 per cent. The fan does not accelerate and decelerate depending on voltage fluctuation, and it does not groan when it runs on inverter power. Also, no wall regulator; speed is managed by remote control. While the product sounds fantastic, Sundar’s journey has not been a fairytale one.
The gift of a digital calculator triggered Sundar’s entrepreneurial dreams. It was given by his US-based aunt in 1977. The pre-degree student was impressed by the technology in the calculator and by the aunt’s description of the opportunities abroad. So, in 1985, after graduating in electrical and electronics engineering from Annamalai University, Sundar joined the University of Missouri for an MS in electrical engineering. “No one in my family knew what TOEFL or GRE was,” said Sundar, 54. “Everything was new to me. I just wanted to make a breakthrough in electrical engineering.”
Armed with the MS, Sundar came back and headed the research wing of a robot manufacturing company in Chennai. His brief was to produce robots in collaboration with a US company. Though he did not make robots there, he found a forever friend—Durgasharan Krishnamurthy, aka Durga. A research engineer at the robotics firm, Durga was a postgraduate in control systems from IIT Madras.
“We have spent many days wandering together in Old Madras, dreaming about doing extraordinary things in the field of electronic controls,” said Sundar. Together, they founded Computer Controlls Corporation (CCC) in 1989 and Versa Drives in 2010. The Superfan came along in 2012. Sundar is managing director and Durga, 52, is director of Versa Drives, which is worth Rs.200 crore now.
CCC was born in Coimbatore with an investment of Rs.2 crore. Sundar and Durga started making electronic controls for textile machinery. The controls were a hit and money poured in. But, the bubble burst when the Union government eased import restrictions on textile machinery. Though Sundar and Durga continued supplying electronic controls for non-textile machinery, a major revenue stream was lost. Then, in 2000, when the demand for Y2K solutions boomed, CCC’s programmers left to join software biggies. Eventually, in 2004, CCC shut down.
Sundar and Durga then decided to quit the electronic controls space and re-focus on their core competency—electrical engineering solutions. In 2007, Sundar developed the variable frequency drive, an electronic speed-control device used in elevators and pump controls. “When we made the variable frequency drive, we were very successful. But, we wanted to make it a more profitable business,” says Sundar.
Then, at a national seminar in Bengaluru, Sundar met an official from a semi-conductor manufacturer. He elaborated about the opportunities in developing speed-control devices for BLDC motor-based ceiling fans. So, Sundar and Durga sat down to invent an electronic control for ceiling fans.
“It was actually Durga’s idea,” said Sundar. “Durga came across an article on the huge energy saving potential in ceiling fans. So, he suggested that we develop a motor drive for BLDC motor-based ceiling fans. He came up with a compact, inexpensive circuit and we applied for patent.”
But, without a compatible motor, the electronic control alone would not be successful. Though many ceiling fan manufacturers hailed the drive, they did not want to use the technology without a motor. So, Sundar and Durga designed a motor to match the drive. Once Versa Drives had both motor and electronics, it started making Superfans.
The Superfan matched Sundar’s expectations from one—he does not like the whirr of a speeding fan. And, the Superfan also broke the colour palette of the ceiling fan industry. It comes in everything from yellow to lilac to blue, green and gold. Versa Drives claims that Superfans consume only 35 watts at high speed, whereas a standard fan consumes 75 watts. But, in a country where 350 million fans hang on the ceiling, the Superfan is nowhere close to becoming a market leader. “The cost is the issue. We are trying hard to find a solution to the pricing,” said Sundar.
Durga said, “Superfans consume 4, 14, and 35 watts at low, medium and high speed; ordinary fans consume 12, 39, and 75 watts. A Superfan costs about Rs.1,000 more than other fans, but the extra cost can be recovered in about 2-3 years through savings in the electricity bill.”
Sundar recalled that at a consumer exhibition in Coimbatore in 2014, visitors walked in to cool down, but did not want to hear about the features of the fan. So, Sundar and Durga decided to develop new marketing strategies. Now they have tapped a sizeable market through distributors in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Today, Versa Drives produces three lakh units annually. It might not be a significant number in India, which produces 40 million units annually and the market is growing at a rate 6 per cent annually. But, Sundar and Durga believe that with an investment of Rs.25 crore they can up the production to 10 lakh units, in three years.
An estimated 350 million ceiling fans are used in India. Each one runs for an average of seven hours a day, consuming up to 75 watts an hour. A study by Prayas Energy Group, Pune, titled ‘Ceiling Fan: The Overlooked Appliance in Energy Efficiency Discussions’ says that at least 200MW will be required additionally every year to operate the increasing number of fans in India.
So, what is Sundar’s next venture? “I have started cutting down my electricity bills at home and at the office,” he said. “Next is to spread the benefit to my fellow countrymen.” At home, Sundar spends just Rs.90 on electricity bill for two months.